Cliveden, a large country house not far from Maidenhead in England, will always be associated for me with the part it played in the events leading to the Munich agreement at the end of September 1938. Today it is owned by the National Trust and is leased to a company running it as a luxury hotel. If I can sell ten thousand copies of my novel The Blue Pencil, I might be able to afford to spend a night at Cliveden.
Many will remember the house in the early sixties when it became notorious as the weekend location for a number of bawdy house parties whose guests included the then Minister for War John Profumo, the good-time girls Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, Stephen Ward, the procurer of women for the rich and famous and perhaps even a Soviet spy. The scandal that engulfed the press at the time cost Profumo his job and Ward his life when he committed suicide.
Cliveden, from the early twentieth century, was owned by the Astor family; Waldorf and his wife Nancy. Lavish weekend parties were in full swing (Cliveden even gets a mention in Downton Abbey) before the First World War when the visitors included the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill. Later Nancy Astor took an intense dislike to Churchill and he seldom appeared after 1918, especially in the thirties when he became an intractable opponent of appeasement.
Waldorf Astor was elected MP for Plymouth Sutton in 1910 but, on the death of his father in 1919, he became Viscount Astor and left the Commons for the Lords. Nancy won the subsequent by-election and became the first woman to take her seat in the Commons. Waldorf had acquired The Observer newspaper in 1911 and his younger brother became owner of The Times in 1922. By the start of the twenties, the Astors had wealth, power, position and influence.
Throughout the twenties and thirties, the Astors hosted weekend parties at Cliveden and during the week at their London mansion at 4 St James Square (there’s a blue plaque on the outside of the house today). At weekends, they played tennis and croquet (future Prime Minister Anthony Eden was said to have excelled at the former), presumably ate cucumber sandwiches and talked politics. The guests shared a rigid set of values;
* They believed in strong Anglo-US relations (both the Astors were originally US citizens)
* They were imperialists.
* They believed that the Germans had been badly treated by the Treaty of Versailles and some former territory should be restored to them.
* They hated the French whom they blamed for the harsh terms imposed on Germany at Versailles.
* Many, but not all, were anti-Semitic.
* All feared the Soviet Union.
Collectively, those who gathered at Cliveden at weekends had great power and influence and so, when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signaled his intention of seeking agreement with Hitler and Mussolini when he took office in May 1937, Lady Astor and her companions were ready to lend their support to his efforts. The hard core of the group included;
* Viscount and Lady Astor
* Philip Kerr, Lloyd George’s former Private Secretary (later Lord Lothian).
* Geoffrey Dawson, Editor of The Times
* J L Garvin, Editor of The Observer
* Sir Neville Henderson, British Ambassador in Berlin.
* Lord Halifax, Foreign Secretary who succeeded Anthony Eden when the latter was elbowed into resignation by Chamberlain in February 1938.
Chamberlain himself was an occasional visitor, especially during times of crises, and another member of London’s social elite who turned up from time to time was Joachim (von) Ribbentrop, the German Ambassador (hanged at Nuremberg in 1946).
In my appeasement thriller The Blue Pencil, I focus attention on two weekends;
* 22/23 October 1937 when the Clivedenites planned Lord Halifax’s secret meeting with Hitler while he was supposedly visiting Germany to attend a hunting exhibition (Halifax was Master of the Hounds).
* 26 March 1938 when Chamberlain has present and the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia was probably planned.
The hero of The Blue Pencil, Roger Martin and his girl friend Jane, befriend a member of Cliveden’s domestic staff when the three are drinking in a pub in the nearby village of Taplow and they piece together what’s happening at the ‘big house.’
Many of the outcomes of these discussions were fully aired in The Times and in September 1938 a leading article was published in that most influential of British newspapers proposing that partition was the solution to the Czech crisis even before Hitler suggested it.
In a country desperate to avoid another war so soon after the previous one, appeasing the dictators had plenty of supporters but also many opponents who pointed out the dangers of the policy. The main politicians who opposed Chamberlain ,of course, were Churchill and Eden, but the country got to know about the insidious influence of Cliveden on our foreign policy from a Claud Cockburn (later a Private Eye stalwart), a brilliant investigative journalist whose weekly news sheet The Week was typed on buff paper in brown ink, distributed by mail and which, at its peak, had a circulation of forty thousand. Roger Martin works closely with Cockburn in The Blue Pencil. Cockburn identified the Cliveden plotters, but it was Reynolds News, the Sunday newspaper of the Co-operative movement, which coined the term ‘the Cliveden Set.’
In researching my novel, I was fortunate to come across two superb accounts of the years of appeasement; Twilight of Truth by Richard Cockett (1989) and The Cliveden Set by Norman Rose (2001). Among the newspapers I consulted was The Times, archive available online, a full bound set of The Week which is in the British Library Newspaper Library at Colindale and Reynolds News and the only complete set of this newspaper can be found in Bradford University Library.
Cliveden, once a house of infamy, now a beautiful house and gardens nestling in the Buckinghamshire countryside on the banks of the River Thames.